Description & Characteristics:
The regal Emperor penguin is the largest of all the penguins. They are also one of the most biologically interesting. Concentrated in the Weddell Sea and Dronning Maud Land, Enderby, Princess Elizabeth Lands, and the Ross Sea, Emperors remain in Antarctica permanently, breeding on the sea ice in some of the coldest conditions on Earth. They do not build nests or defend a fixed territory, using their warm bodies instead to incubate and raise their young. This unique breeding behavior–Emperors are the only Antarctic bird that breeds in winter–may have developed to allow chicks to grow to independence at a time when food is most plentiful and predators are few.
Emperor Penguins have a big head, a short, thick neck, a streamlined shape, a short, wedge-shaped tail, and tiny, flipper-like wings. The sexes are alike, with blue-grey upperparts and blackish-blue heads adorned with large white and yellow ear patches. Their underparts are mostly white but with the upper breast showing a pale yellow. The only penguin remotely similar in size and appearance is the King penguin which is smaller and more brightly marked. Like all penguins, Emperors have shiny, waterproof feathers that help keep their skin dry and webbed feet which they use for swimming.
Unlike most penguins, which feed on surface krill, Emperor penguins live on fish, squid, and crustaceans caught on long, deep pursuit dives. They will quite often reach depths of more than 700 feet and remain submerged for up to 18 minutes.
Emperor penguins establish loose breeding colonies on the pack ice surrounding the Antarctic continent. In May, female Emperors will lay a single egg after a 63-day gestation period, and then will pass the egg over to her mate while she goes off to sea to feed.
Male Emperors will be unable to eat during the ensuing 9 week incubation period. Instead, he must keep his egg warm by balancing it on his feet, where it isinsulated by a thick roll of skin and feathers called the ‘brood pouch.’ For added warmth and protection against the bitter winds and sub-zero temperatures, the males will huddle together in tight bunches. After the eggs have hatched, young chicks will remain in the ‘brood pouch’ for a short time until they are able to regulate their own body temperatures.
By the time the female returns to take over feeding the chick, the male will have lost up to a third of his body weight. He must now make another long trek over the ice –up to 60 miles–to find food.
By January, as the sea-ice begins to break out, the chicks have lost most of their soft silvery-gray down, and are now able to head out independently for the open sea.